What a better way to start our stay in Lisbon than a free guided tour. Our required first step to begin our integration into a new city.
Habits die hard!
We join our group in Lisbon’s main square, the “Praça do Comércio“.
A little history to start with
I must admit that before coming here, Portugal only represented for me the sun, the beach, and the pastries. The Portuguese pastries! It still is, of course, but I have discovered the incredible history of this small country.
And Lisbon plays a big part in it.
Lisbon’s geographical location
Lisbon is situated at the mouth of the “Tagus”, the biggest river of the Iberian Peninsula, which has its source in Spain and flows here into the Atlantic Ocean. The port of Lisbon becomes a major axis for trade between the Mediterranean Sea and Northern Europe. It is also on the trade road between sub-Saharan Africa and the Americas.
Lisbon, a wealthy city
This situation, as well as the colonization of countries in Asia, America, and the Atlantic Islands, made Lisbon one of the richest cities in the world in the 16th century.
Many foreign traders come here to grow their business. Many convert to Christianity to be allowed to stay. They will be called the new Christians (as opposed to the old Christians). Unfortunately, the king introduced the inquisition, and many wealthy traders had to flee to the northern countries because only old Christians had the right to live in Portugal.
Lisbon is gradually getting poorer.
But the end of Lisbon at that time was precipitated by the earthquake of 1 November 1755, which destroyed two-thirds of the city.
The Lisbon earthquake
This earthquake will be the largest ever recorded and will be widely discussed.
It took place on a Holy Day, November 1, at 9:40 am, when the majority of Lisbon’s inhabitants attended Mass. Two more tremors followed, as well as a 7-meter high tsunami on the Tagus River, which killed all those who had taken refuge on its shore. Of Lisbon’s 180,000 inhabitants, between 30,000 and 60,000 have died.
European philosophers and intellectuals questioned themselves. Why would God punish a city like Lisbon, Catholic and devoted, during a Holy day? Is there any other power than God that could rule the world?
The reconstruction of Lisbon
King Joseph 1’s prime minister, the “Marquis of Pombal“, is in charge of the reconstruction of the city.
His priorities: to rebuild quickly and with an anti-seismic structure.
Its name is the “Pombal cage“.
It’s a wooden structure installed in the walls and covered with building materials. It is a fixed wooden rectangle with diagonal braces that can withstand the overload and stress of an earthquake. To test its resistance, Pombal will build a prototype and ask his army to walk around and stomp their feet to simulate an earthquake.
The plan for the new Lisbon
The reconstruction will take place around the Praça do Comércio, which was the site of the terrace of the Palace of Ribeiro (Terreiro do Paco), the main residence of the kings of Portugal. The narrow streets are replaced by large straight avenues placed orthogonally, neighborhoods are created by activity, and the buildings have been standardized. This has allowed faster reconstruction, thanks to mass production and the beginning of the prefabricated. Each apartment will be separated by masonry walls that will act as a firewall.
The first floor of the buildings is reserved for shops, offices or wealthy people. The upper floors will be for the poorest. Less property, therefore, less weight on floors, smaller windows, and shared balconies.
More details and an interactive tour of the city? Head to the Lisboa Story Center, located in the Praça do Comércio
The tourist Lisbon
Back in the present, we stand at the foot of the statue of King Joseph I. This statue was erected during the king’s lifetime and was, a priori, inaugurated with pomp and circumstance. It’s a little surprising when you study the statue which is not very flattering.
The famous statue
The king sits on a horse that looks more like a pony with a bow tied to its tail. He wears a cape and a feathered helmet, holds in his hand not a sword but a kind of magic wand, and worst of all, he turns his back on his city.
The Lisbon’s inhabitants of the time never forgave him for his cowardice. Following the earthquake, he left Lisbon to settle in his surroundings, and he was so traumatized by the earthquake that he demanded his court to live in a camp where they stayed until his death.
Before leaving the square, we admire the banks of the Tagus and the multicolored stone sculptures.
The pedestrian city
The gate that connects the Praça do Comércio to the city.
We begin our discovery of the Baixa district, literally “Down in the City.” It is the most popular and tourist area. Most of the streets are pedestrian, and it’s a real pleasure to walk around here. Lots of shops, restaurants, and pastries.
And we start with the tasting of a “Pastel de Nata“, the specialty of the region. Our guide takes us to a famous pastry shop, but frankly we ate others afterwards, and they were all as good and fresh.
For purists, Pastel de Nata are from Belém, a neighboring town, where there is THE pastry shop that invented these little tarts.
If you feel like it and you’re patient, you can always go there and queue to taste one.
After this delight, we go up towards “Bairro Alto et Chiado”, a district on the heights of Lisbon. Lisbon is built in the middle of the hills. You should, therefore, expect to climb stairs or steep streets often.
The municipality has built elevators to facilitate movement. They are found all over the old parts of the city. But the best known is the “Santa Justa” elevator, “Carmo lift“. It is so beautiful and original that it has become a tourist attraction. Looks like the Eiffel Tower, doesn’t it?
It connects the lower town to the upper town and takes us to the ruins of the Convento da Ordem do Carmo. This medieval convent was destroyed during the earthquake and has never been rebuilt. All that remains is the facade of the Gothic church, the largest in Lisbon at the time.
A visit in pictures
Tavares Restaurant, opened in 1784, is the oldest coffee in Lisbon. And one of the first to introduce espresso. They had to add a lot of sugar for the people of Lisbon to appreciate it!
In front of Tavares, where he liked to go, Eça de Queirós, the greatest Portuguese writer to write in the realistic style.
The story goes that he had multiple personalities with whom he talked, and who became characters in his novels. 😉
Opposite, and who made us think of a rapper by his position, the poet Antonio Ribeiro called Chiado. This monk chose to abandon the cloistered life to be able to give free rein to his verve and enjoy the “joie de vivre” of this time. He will end up as the most beloved poet of the people.
Place Camões. Luis de Camões is one of the greatest poets in Portugal. He is the author of Os Lusíadas, The Lusiads, recognized as the most important work in Portuguese literature. It narrates the discovery of a sea route to India by the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama (1469-1524).
He has a blindfold following a peaceful demonstration by a group denouncing the lack of resources allocated to culture.
Another older one… but this time it’s the oldest Fado bar.
Going to listen to Fado is a must if you are staying in Lisbon.
It’s a Portuguese musical genre. It all started when the fishermen’s wives met at the wash house and talked about their lives while singing. Songs with sad tunes and words telling their poor life and sung with a feeling of resignation. Now there are male artists, but the soul of Fado has remained the same.
Place Rossio, or King Pedro IV’s square. It is located in the city center, and has been a very popular place since the Middle Ages, place of revolts and executions.
The statue that sits is King Pedro IV, Emperor of Brazil and son of the King of Portugal, …
… but some say that it would be the statue of a Russian tsar, and that there would have been a small mix at the time of its construction 😃
Next to Rossio square, the Cinema do Rossio. The… oldest cinema in Lisbon. 😊
Now it offers shows for adults!
Discovery of another district, Alfama
Our tour finished, we went back to the Tagus river. We walked along the Praça do Comércio, took the “Rua da Alfândega” towards the “Mirador of Saint Lucia“, which offers one of the most beautiful views of the city.
It’s a different ride. Old Lisbon has not changed, the alleys are narrow and the climb up the stairs is steep.
There is a lot of mutual aid in these neighborhoods.
Seniors or people with reduced mobility who cannot leave their homes because of the stairs rely on their neighbors to take care of them, often in exchange for small services. These communities are very united and proud.
One last funny thing. There is always someone at a window watching you. At first, we feel spied on, but it’s their way of being less alone. CCTV in action 😁
We pass in front of the Saramago Foundation with its original architecture.
This building withstood the earthquake. Its construction was influenced by the palaces of the Italian renaissance and the Portuguese Manueline style. It was built by the governor of “Portuguese India” which was at this time a state representing the Portuguese colonies in India.
Finally, we reach the viewpoint and can admire the impressive view of the city. It is really the ideal place to end the visit. There are plenty of terraces where you can sit and recover from our hours of walking, and enjoy a Vinho Verde.
The name means “green wine”, but it can also be called “young wine”. The wine is bottled three to six months after the grapes are harvested. They can be red, white or pink, and exist in sparkling wines, late harvests, and even brandy. The choice is yours!
Street art at Lisbon
Another curiosity of Lisbon! There are many works of art in the city.
And it is a delight to discover them around a street.
Nearby, not to be missed
There is a nice walk to do along the Tagus river, which goes from the Praça do Comércio to Santa Maria de Belém, or Belém. 😁Of course, you can do it by walking or running, but the best is to rent an electric bike. There are quite a few here, and it’s really nice. Otherwise, train, tram, or bus.
Beautiful monuments to discover, and perhaps the Pastel de Nata! Do you remember?
The “April 25 Bridge” which links Almada and Lisbon. This bridge was previously called the “Salazar Bridge”, from the name of the dictator who ordered its construction. But on 25 April 1974, the day of his dismissal following a revolutionary movement, the name of the bridge was changed.
The most remarkable thing about Lisbon is that the city has kept its authenticity and do what’s needed to remain beautiful. The Praça do Comércio and its surroundings still have their former splendor. The alleys of old Lisbon take the visitor back to the past, and it is pleasant to see the “village” spirit which still reigns in each district. Many parks welcome you on the heights to offer you panoramic views and enjoy the present moment.
The climate also contributes to this feeling of well-being. The sun often shines, and the blue of the sky is perfect. Despite everything, the ocean cools the temperature, and I must admit that a sweater was always welcome to fully appreciate the evenings outside.
My list would not be complete if I didn’t mention the warm welcome we had throughout our stay.
Despite this, Lisbon is a modern city on the move, and its new districts also have their buildings!